Boom time for website courses

The technological revolution has led to increasing numbers of new programmes, says Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

Just when did the term multimedia enter our everyday lexicon? Probably after mobile phones but well before texting. Post-Grease, pre-Shrek. The exact date is impossible to pin down, but it's undeniable that, in the past decade, the scope and scale of multimedia influences on our lives has expanded rapidly.

Just when did the term multimedia enter our everyday lexicon? Probably after mobile phones but well before texting. Post-Grease, pre-Shrek. The exact date is impossible to pin down, but it's undeniable that, in the past decade, the scope and scale of multimedia influences on our lives has expanded rapidly.

It's hardly surprising, then, that, in an expanding higher-education sector, the number of degrees with a multimedia flavour is growing exponentially. This year, there are more than 900 such courses on the UCAS website. That's ahead of modern languages, with 823, but behind maths, on 1,542, and undergraduates' favourite, media, on 2,548.

The array of course descriptions is vast, and most straddle technical and creative areas, a reflection of the fact that, to succeed in highly competitive fields, such as website creation, movie animation and 3D graphic design, you'll need an understanding of the underlying digital technologies, as well as creative skills. However, many courses have a distinct bias in either the technical or creative direction.

The offering of courses also reflects the fact that, in the same way as simple IT has invaded almost every aspect of working lives, so multimedia looks set to become a part of a wide swathe of occupations. Hence, the proliferation of joint degrees with multimedia as a component. At University College Chester, as well as the three-year BA in multimedia technologies, there are a further 25 essentially similar courses, mixing the core elements with another subject: advertising, French or criminology, to name just three.

The University of Central Lancashire, at Preston, was first to include the word web in its degree titles and now has a well-established and successful three-year BSc in web and multimedia, attracting about 30 students a year. This provides a broad grounding in the code-writing and graphic design skills necessary to design interactive websites which provide functions such as online shopping.

It's a technical course, housed in the department of technology, and differs fundamentally, for example, from the multimedia and sonic arts degree at the arts and fashion department at Preston, which leans much more in the direction of creative disciplines. The web and multimedia programme leader, Martyn Shaw, has seen his graduates go on to jobs in web design or as webmasters at schools or colleges. The same department is currently recruiting for a new course, called interactive digital media, which follows the fast-growing world of interactive television, and delivery of all sorts of bells and whistles to third-generation mobile phones.

"We used to run an electronics course, which had changed little since the 1950s," explains Shaw, "but now it's a constantly changing environment and we have to modify our course every two years or so."

The growing popularity of multimedia is also illustrated at Kent University's department of electronics, where by far the largest undergraduate course is the three-year BSc in multimedia technology and design, which attracts 90 new first-years every autumn.

Steve Kelly, senior lecturer on the course, prides himself on the quality of course content in both the technical and design areas. So many websites, he argues, look nice but don't work, while others function but look a compete mess. Graduates of his course will be equipped to avoid both traps, although he concedes it's a rare individual who's equally gifted in both areas.

"People are going to come out biased towards one side or the other. Some will go on to be designers, but they'll need to be competent in the technical side, and the reverse is also true for those going in the other direction."

Neither Kent nor Central Lancashire stipulate subjects that have to be passed at A-level. Both stress the importance of aptitude and enthusiasm, alongside A-level passes of mainly Bs and Cs. Multimedia degrees quickly become hands-on, and progress is measured as much by what you can do as by how much you can write about the subject. This is fortunate, as practical skills are what future employers will be looking for.

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